Published Jun 24, 2011Previewing a new album of bluegrass-accented roots rock by performing at an Israeli festival may not be the most conventional move, but it worked just fine for Ontario's the Abrams Brothers last month. This was in fact the third visit to Israel for the group, as they had also played the country's Jacob's Ladder Folk Festival in 2007 and 2008.
As vocalist/guitarist John Abrams tells Exclaim!, "We first toured Europe in 2006 and we saw bluegrass in parts of the world we never would have imagined. No matter where you go in the world, people are looking for real, authentic and good music. Bluegrass is just that."
The Abrams Brothers are now back touring closer to home, as they will be playing festivals and headlining their own theatre gigs from PEI to BC in the months ahead (see tour dates below). The tour is in support of their fourth album, Northern Redemption, released on United for Opportunity/Fontana North earlier this week.
The Abrams Brothers comprise siblings John, 20, and fiddle player/vocalist James Abrams, 18, plus bass-playing cousin Elijah Abrams, 20. Despite their youth, they can accurately be described as veterans, given that John and James have been touring together for over a decade. Earlier albums Carrying On (2004) and Iron Sharpens Iron (2007) were more orthodox bluegrass-based records, while 2008's Blue on Brown was a tribute to the songs of Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie.
John Abrams now defines the group's sound as "bluegrass rock, our own genre we have been developing over the last two records." Assisting in this stylistic transition has been a notable figure on the Canadian indie rock scene, Chris Brown. Formerly with the much-loved Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, singer/songwriter/producer Brown has worked with the likes of Ani DiFranco, Barenaked Ladies and Kate Fenner. He produced Northern Redemption and also co-wrote much of the record with John and James Abrams, in different combinations.
Brown tells Exclaim!, "When I first met the Abrams, they were 14, 15 and 16. They had already played the Grand Ole Opry, received numerous awards and been given the nod from the likes of Charlie Louvin. They were in the midst of the Dylan and Arlo Guthrie tribute album, which I helped them finish. We began writing together, and if the process of making Northern Redemption was a prolonged one, it was because there was so much developing. They were broadening to electric instruments, playing with [legendary New York drummer] Anton Fier and devouring Neil Young and rock, which began infecting their playing. They can pick with anybody anywhere, but the original music that began coming forward was a whole other trip."
Recording sessions took place at the Post Office, Brown's studio on Wolfe Island, ON (near Kingston), with a core group comprising the Abrams Brothers, Brown on keyboards and Fier (Lounge Lizards, Golden Palominos). Abrams describes the setting as "quite rustic, and I think that's part of the magic and beauty of recording in there. It's like a cabin, with a great front porch with a stack of wood, a hatchet and hockey sticks. In between vocal takes, we'd stoke the fire and feed the cats. It is a very real and organic environment, and I think the kind of music you record in a place like that will follow suit."
Guest musicians included Teddy Kumpel, Eric Schenkman (Spin Doctors), pedal steel ace Burke Carroll and Andrew Whiteman (Broken Social Scene), with some additional recording and mixing taking place at New York City studios Green Door and the Magic Shop.
Alongside seven originals on Northern Redemption are two covers, of Big Star's "Thirteen" and a rootsified cover of Coldplay hit "Viva La Vida." To John Abrams, "Writing this record was a watershed for us. In the past, whether it was old bluegrass or contemporary rock songs, we'd do them in our own style. That was important for us to do growing up. It helped us exercise our originality but we always knew writing would be our next step."
Brown is also thrilled at the results. "Once they began seriously focusing on writing, it was an interesting balance between given'er and backing the hell off... I mean it takes passion and it takes patience. When you are used to standing ovations since you were ten years old, it can be quite a trip to surrender to the solitary and quiet demands of poetry. Aesthetically, they have kept the stomp in their boots, and amplified it."
John Abrams in now majoring in English at Queen's University in Kingston, ON, with James likely to follow suit. John cites literature as a source of inspiration, while noting that "being on the road for ten years is another. We're the fourth generation of our family to be on the road as musicians, so even at our young age we've been able to gather life experiences not many of our age have had the opportunity to have. We are very thankful for those times."
One Abrams Brothers career highlight came back in 2004, when John and James got to perform at Nashville country music shrine the Grand Ole Opry.
"I was 15 and my brother was 12," recalls James. "We were guests of the Mike Snider String Band. We were warming up with them in the dressing room, playing a fiddle medley. We were walking towards the stage, and I'm thinking, 'Okay, we'll do the soundcheck now, then do our thing later.' I'm two feet away from the stage when a guy in the band says, 'It's not a soundcheck,' and two seconds later, James and I are onstage in front of 4,500 people, not to mention millions watching on TV.
"I never had a chance to get nervous. I was situated onstage near the circle that was cut out of the old Ryman Auditorium, and I made sure I had a foot in that circle. I wanted to stand on the same place Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Bill Monroe had played. That was a cool moment. I think we still hold the title of the youngest Canadians to play the Grand Ole Opry."
7/7 Brooklyn, NY - Celebrate Brooklyn
7/10 Saratoga Springs, NY - Caffe Lena
7/14 Toronto, ON - Nathan Phillips Square
8/7 Indian River, PEI - Indian River Festival
8/13 Bethlehem, PA - Musikfest
8/20 Stephentown, NY - Bella Terra Festival
9/30 Kingston, ON - Kingston Gospel Theatre
10/14 Fort St. John, BC - North Peace Cultural Centre
10/15 Maple Ridge, BC - The Act
10/18 Osoyoos, BC - Osoyoos Mini Theatre
10/21 Sherwood Park, AB - Festival Place
11/19 Port Hope, ON - Capitol Theatre